ENGL 489

Majors Seminar – Language
Prescriptivism in English: A Corpus Linguistic Approach

Course Description
Most students of English are taught some or all of the following prescriptive rules:
Use fewer with a count noun and less with a non-count noun (e.g. fewer coins, less money).
Say It is I not It is me. Do not say Me and Jane went to the mall.
Do not use a double negative: don’t say I don’t want no more trouble.
Do not split an infinitive: don’t say I want to carefully examine the evidence.
Use the subjunctive in if-clauses: say If I were a bit taller, not If I was a bit taller.
Do not use singular ‘they’: say Everyone should take his/ his or her seats, not Everyone should take their seats.
Datum is a singular, data is a plural: say the data were complex, not the data was complex.

To what extent do speakers of contemporary English actually follow prescriptive rules? In order to determine what current usage actually is, this course studies the use of prescriptive rules in examples of spoken and written contemporary English. Students will learn the basics of corpus linguistics, or the study of naturally-occurring language on the basis of electronic collections of text (corpora). Following a set of graded exercises, students will undertake an individualized research topic by studying the use of a particular prescriptive rule in, among others, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the British National Corpus, and the Strathy Corpus of Canadian English.

The course will also introduce students to the nature and history of prescriptivism in English and its codification in usage guides.

Hans Lindquist. 2009. Corpus Linguistics and the Description of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Curzan, Anne. 2014. Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Set of available readings (available through Connect)


  • Two corpus exercises (one lexical, one grammatical) (each 15% = 30%)
  • Three discussion postings on readings (15%)
  • Oral talk presenting research project (10%)
  • Research paper (10-12 pages): a study of a particular structure which, using corpus techniques, seeks to understand the ways in which the structure is changing in Present-Day English (45%)

Learning Outcomes
Upon completion of this course, students will be able to

  1. conduct research on the English language, using both secondary and primary materials, and both quantitative and qualitative methods
  2. formulate linguistic research questions which can be effectively studied using electronic corpora
  3. develop appropriate search algorithms for researching such questions
  4. use search programs to collect the necessary data from electronic corpora
  5. analyze and evaluate the data using linguistic criteria
  6. present the results of the collection and analysis of the data in a well-structured research paper

All materials of this course (course handouts, lecture slides, assessments, course readings, etc.) are the intellectual property of the Course Instructor or licensed to be used in this course by the copyright owner. Redistribution of these materials by any means without permission of the copyright holder(s) constitutes a breach of copyright and may lead to academic discipline.